His face was just as handsome as the day she said, “I do.” She touched his neatly pressed tuxedo, noting where the white carnation had been pinned with care by his elderly mother. Both sets of parents had beamed with joy and smiles on their wedding day, though glistening tears had danced in their hopeful eyes.
“I love you,” she had whispered in his ear during the opening ceremony prayer. He peeked with a mischievous brown eye and said, “I know.” That had earned the playful shin kick he received and the temporary forgetting of her vows to him. Oh, but he got her back when he swooped her up into his sturdy arms and carried her down the aisle. Their guests were mortified, of course. But she had quite enjoyed it.
“Michelle, it’s time to go.” A masculine hand touched her elbow.
“Just five minutes more, please.” She hid her eyes from the waiting figure and looked into the face of the one she loved. She missed his smile, his wit. She shivered at the cool parlor air.
“You can come back early tomorrow. He’ll still be here.” The man checked his gold pocket watch and motioned towards the door.
“I love you,” she whispered to the silent face and walked backwards to the door. She needed every moment with him, every detail etched in her memory. In her mind echoed his voice, “I know.”
Hers weren’t tears of joy.
As she walked down the street and over two blocks to their house, Michelle avoided the large crowds of people congregating around the most popular stores. Don’t let them see your eyes. I wish everyone would stop staring, she thought. People looked at her—or maybe through her—as they adjusted their ball caps or nodded at a friend. She shivered and pulled her grey cardigan around her supple shoulders and quickened her pace. Past the shoe shop, up the steps, slip the key in the lock, bolt the door.
107. Breathe, Michelle, she reminded herself. There you go, deeply inhale. Exhale.
She leaned against the oak door and slid to the ground. Her pulsing heartbeat and airtaking lungs were the only sounds in the empty shell of a house. 91. That’s better. She was the only living thing there. Oh Rob, what comes after death does us part?
It was suppertime, but she loathed the thought of food. Was that a moving shadow down the hall? She felt trapped alone under a boulder that crushed her shoulders, pushing her into the hardwood flooring through constant force. Little quick gasps escaped her lips.
There it was again. 112. She sat stone still and tried regulating her breathing. Glancing at the tall grandfather clock on the far side of the living room, she noticed its silvery blades pointed at 6:30. Did she really leave the cookbook open on the kitchen island? That was unlike her. Always a neat freak, Rob had jested with a twinkle in his eye. And that chair at the head of the island stood crooked next to its neighbors. The pictures, their pictures, on the face of the fridge leaned to the left towards the freezer as if haphazardly knocked by a careless hand. Was I really that much of a wreck this morning?
But shadows flitting at 6:30 in the hallway . . . unlikely. Unless someone’s in here with me, she thought. Okay, calm down. You’re perfectly safe. 90. You’re alone.
Michelle stood to her feet with effort and fished in her sweater pocket for the stone. She ran her fingers over the smooth surface and clutched it in her palm. So perfect it’s almost soft, she thought. Both calming but emanating strength, its gentle ripples swelling and abating like an amber ocean with somber depths and cheerful surfaces. I still have it, Rob. All these years later. If only you understood how much it means right now . . . how much I need you . . . I think you’d be surprised. “You’re strong, Michelle.” The richness in his voice like deeply stained mahogany rang in her spinning head. I can do this. I can be strong.
She exhaled and sat down at the island, clinking her keys against the granite countertop and jumping a little at the noise. I wish I weren’t alone. She closed the cookbook and placed it on top of the other blue cookbook, spine facing her. Each cookbook was color coded, and she smiled at this small measure of control in her life. At least some things never change.
Knock knock knock sang the oaken front door. Michelle froze and swiveled her eyes to the ominous thing. 115. One, two shadows she saw through the window shrouded in white blinds. I need to dust those, she noted. What could they want?
“Michelle, hello? We thought you might be home,” the muffled voice said.
Michelle melted to the floor and tucked her body into her cardigan in a fetal position. Think small thoughts. Think small thoughts, she inwardly crooned, daring not to make a peep.
Please go away, Michelle thought. She pulled her sweater tighter and prayed her pounding heartbeat wouldn’t alert the people on the other side of the door. The last thing I need is strangers invading my house. The shadows shifted and shrank, retreating into the distance after a hundred breathless moments. People were certainly watching her, but why? She wiggled her fingers into the rock’s hiding place and took it out. It felt like glass but hid a world of fire beneath the outer layer. One could hardly tell where the one began and the other ended. It was a polished, almost golden caramel Grand Canyon ridge in the palm of her hand. 89.
“I suppose I have to eat,” she informed the silent house. She sat up and drew her knees to her chest, slipping the stone back into her pocket. Maybe I can do this, she thought. After mindless musings she stood and opened the freezer. So pretty—all that lush green. She grabbed the closest bag of broccoli, noting by touch the unwelcomed presence of ice crystals on the inside. She sighed. The other bags in the freezer looked the exact same. It’ll have to do.
Michelle sat at the island and ate her broccoli one stalk at a time. Her eyes were sentries guarding the ever-darkening house. Lights. She almost laughed a bitter laugh at her folly. Of course the lights would help. She flicked on the kitchen overheads and meandered into the living room.
There. He sat there in his favorite brown recliner and watched baseball at 8pm. The Mets were always his first choice.She never understood the fascination with the little white ball and how fast it flew through the air.
“I love you,” she had said each night after the game finished.
“I love you more than this,” he’d respond and point to the screen. Michelle would blush because she knew it was true.
She sat on the couch now and stared at his weathered piece of furniture. He used to cross his left leg over his right—leaving only one leg indentation in the leather.
Michelle suddenly felt the tears speed down her cheeks and plummet to her blouse. She didn’t understand. Why am I not okay? she thought. I know he’s gone, but don’t people eventually get on with life? Her shoulders shook but no noise came out of her mouth. He was everywhere in the house from the walls to the fridge to the rugs and the blinds. His routine walked the shell of the house like a ghost; his routine lived in her. Her blurry eyes were drawn to the saying on the bookshelf: home is where the heart is. Michelle sobbed. Tomorrow her heart would be buried six feet under. She cried till her eyes lost all their tears and burned like a desert.
Thump. Michelle bolted awake in a state of confusion. It was dark except for the kitchen lights, and the night stood stalk still. 118. Alone on the couch, but why? Without a blanket too. Did she hear a noise? Something moving upstairs? She pulled her cardigan tight and struggled to breathe. 121. Her heart raced. Where was the bat Rob always kept around just in case? But Rob couldn’t protect her. She was alone. She imagined a dark figure creeping around the bedrooms upstairs, peeking in closets, rifling through papers, holding a knife at the ready. 130. Her racing heart found another gear and kicked it into full throttle.
Alone. I wish Rob were here, she thought. Or anyone for that matter. Shadows in the corner danced like stealthy men and turned her blood cold. Don’t stare too long. She snapped her eyelids closed and felt for the stone. Tiger’s Eye. Think of anything but here. You are strong and brave, she repeated to herself. I’m alone and I’m fine. I wish I could be with Rob in the frigid parlor rather than here. Rob. 115. You can do this. I can be fierce and grieving can’t I, she thought. I will heal. It will get better. It has to. Michelle pictured the Tiger’s Eye resting in her fingers, pulsing strength. 80. You need to sleep, she thought. Tomorrow will be an exhausting day.
And it was indeed an exhausting day for Michelle.
She sat at her island thinking of her stone. The grandfather clock struck 3:00 and reverberated into her soul. She felt it hard to be fierce and grieving at the same time. Impossible? Maybe. She was no Tiger’s Eye. She wasn’t strong . . . or brave. Today had certainly shown that.
Knock knock knock the door cried from its place on the hinges. 109. Her heart was too tired to race much faster today. Michelle looked down and sighed. Let the strangers overrun the place. I don’t care anymore. She felt for the comforting presence of the stone in her pocket. Gone. Her heart sank. No, where could it be? She thought. Empty. With hollow dismay she felt the rip at the corner of her cardigan pocket. How could she be so foolish, so careless? The Tiger’s Eye could be anywhere—in the house, on the street, in the cold parlor, or forgotten in the grass by the graveside. Lost. Probably forever.
Knock knock mourned the knuckles on oak. There’s no use in looking for it now, she numbly thought. She wanted to cry, but with what tears? She reflected a few seconds more. An empty house, not a home. This vastly altered life would be her new normal . . . maybe she would be okay without the stone. She would fight to be okay, there was no other way. She could still feel its natural heart shape, the coolness on her skin, the mesmerizing cascades of love. Perhaps she would be okay without him.
Michelle stood up, straightening her shoulders. She padded to the door, unbolted the lock after a quick breath, and opened the portal to her house in a mix of confused resolve but unsure of what was next.
“Hey, Michelle.” The speaker still wore her funeral clothes. But then again, so did Michelle. “We, um, wanted to check on you.” She gestured to the two other ladies standing on the steps. They held a crockpot, a casserole dish, and a blueberry pie.
“Thanks, Amy.” Michelle shifted uneasily on her doorstep but tried looking pleasant.
“Of course,” said Amy. “It’s the least we could do.” She stood at a little distance and seemed content to stand where she stood. She gave Michelle a slight smile and gazed into her amber eyes.
Hers wasn’t a frightening look but a welcoming one, Michelle thought. 78. Do I let them in? I suppose it’d be rude to leave them standing there.
“John and I came by last night but you might’ve been busy then. I brought some friends with me today.”
Michelle shifted again and put a hand in her sweater pocket. There was something decidedly bright in Amy’s eyes. “You can come in.” Maybe they aren’t so bad after all, she thought. The ladies walked in, and Michelle closed the door.
“What a lovely home!” said Amy. She set the pie on the island, and the other ladies followed suit with their dishes. “It’s so clean and tidy.”
Michelle ducked her head. “Thanks.” Somehow she felt attracted to this kind woman, even though she didn’t know her that well. Without realizing it Michelle reached for a hug. Amy gently obliged, wrapping her in a reassuring embrace. It felt like healing.
“Helen made you a broccoli cheese casserole,” Amy said. Helen gave a shy smile.
“Broccoli casserole is my favorite.” Michelle’s eyes misted, and she shook her head a little in disbelief. “How did you know?”
Helen looked at Amy. “We’re your neighbors, Michelle.”
“Neighbors know things about their neighbors,” Amy said.
Michelle looked at the ladies standing in her house. Maybe she didn’t have to be fierce either, not right now. Maybe it was okay to grieve when you were hurting.
Because eventually, things get better.
There will always be people who care, people who’d reach out and make sure she’d be alright. Even without her stone, Michelle sensed a new kind of calm reassurance. Things would be hard in the coming months, even the next few years. Who knew how long grief lasted? But there would always be someone waiting to help.
“And neighbors are here for each other.” Amy walked to the island and looked at the food. “Michelle, it’s okay to not be okay all the time. But you have to let something other than pain grow inside you,” she said quietly.
Amy’s words struck home. She was wise. The loving kind of wise that makes you want to listen. Maybe it’s okay to let people in, to share some of your fears with people who care about you.
“You don’t have to be alone. We’ll keep you company.” Helen’s voice sounded like feathers, airy and sweet.
Michelle knew she was right. They all were. She had been so wrong about them, about herself this whole time.
“Do you mind if we eat an early supper with you? We’ll even help with the dishes.” Amy winked at Michelle and the other ladies nodded in agreement.
“I just so happen to have four stools at this island.” Michelle gestured for everyone to sit while she got down the plates. It was the first time she’d smiled in about a week. And it felt really good.
Amy joined Michelle in getting the plates and cutlery ready and squeezed her shoulder. “Hey, you’re going to be alright.”
Michelle thought about the impromptu little gathering with something akin to pleasure. I don’t have to be alone in this. I don’t have to be so brave when I have strong people around me. People that care. What is this feeling? She felt the warmth from the ladies in her home and suddenly realized it. Tiger’s Eye. It was hope.